Thursday, February 28, 2019

What's the Worst that Could Happen? (Climate Change Edition)



Cuing the denialist trolls in 3...2...1....

This edition of "What's the Worst that Could Happen?" gazes at the grimmest movie imaginings regarding man-made climate change. 

Basically, this is the idea that humanity's footprint on the planet is causing catastrophic extinctions and environmental changes on Earth. 

We are poisoning our oceans and our forests, melting Antarctic and Arctic ice at an alarming rate, and contributing to the death of coral reefs, insects, and more as we continue to submit to political inertia in terms of this threat. 

You don't have to be Al Gore to be concerned, you just have to be open to the evidence of your eyes.



09. In the age of climate change impact, our cities, including London, are flooded continuous basis. You don't require automobiles to travel around this great city, you need boats! (Split Second [1992]).



08. Climate change is speeding up because malevolent aliens have realized that with just a little prodding, we'll turn our home into a world unsuitable or humans, but one entirely suitable or them. (The Arrival [1996]).




07. "Who Killed the World?" We did. In the not-so-distant future, water is a precious scarcity (so don't get addicted to it...) and doled out by a corpulent, intemperate, misogynist dictator (no, not Donald Trump). Meanwhile the world is an arid desert, and colossal atmospheric storms dot the inhospitable surface. (Mad Max: Fury Road [2015]).



06. In response to the global climate change catastrophe, man engineers a scientific and technical response, which only serves to plunge the world into an inhospitable ice age. (The Colony [2013]).



05. In response to the global climate change catastrophe, man engineers a response, which only serves to plunge the world into an inhospitable ice age. Sounds familiar, right? As a result, most of man dies off, the world is frozen, and survivors are forced to dwell aboard a trans-global train, where an elite minority controls all the resources. (Snowpiercer [2014]).



04. The world is overpopulated, the oceans are dead, and all our animals are dying out. Sterility is setting in. Our cities become overpopulated. But the good news is that there is a miracle new food to starve the teeming masses, called Soylent Green! Hint: you may not like the primary ingredient. (Soylent Green [1973]).



03. Global warming causes the total submersion of all Earth's land masses, creating a world of global oceans. Generations later, a few human survivors dwell on the surface, on defenseless atolls, and "dry land" is a myth. The truth is that man's old cities still exist...at the bottom of the sea. (Waterworld [1995]).



02. Because of climate change, ocean circulation in the North Atlantic is dramatically altered. Europe and most of North America become subject to severe global cooling, and a new ice age dawns. Americans are forced to flee to Mexico, which provides sanctuary for survivors. The crisis is so bad that the movie's Dick Cheney like vice-president changes his mind, and actually gives up his staunch climate denial-ism, thus proving the movie is a total fantasy. (The Day After Tomorrow [2004]).



01. A new ice age kills of 99 percent of the human population in a grim, hopeless future. The few survivors play a game of life and death called Quintet to pass the remaining days and nights until humanity's total annihilation. (Quintet [1979]).

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

UFO: "Conflict"



A space probe is unexpectedly destroyed in orbit as it removes orbital wreckage/garbage (including Apollo 8!) from standard SHADO flight paths. The culprit in this apparent "accident" is actually an alien space device which attaches itself to spaceships in Earth orbit, after hiding in the "space junk."

Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) wants the International Astrophysical Commission, led by James  Henderson (Grant Taylor), to clean up the debris field surrounding Earth, but Henderson refuses to do so, even though the debris is imperiling SHADO operations. They clash verbally over their difference in opinions.


Soon, a lunar shuttle, commanded by Steve Maddox (Drewe Henley), is also destroyed by the hidden alien device, but Henderson isn't interested in helping. He merely wants Straker to lose his job. On Moonbase, Colonel Foster (Michael Billington) works with Straker to force Henderson's hand, even though all flights from the moon to Earth have been shut down...


"Conflict" is a fascinating episode of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's UFO because it recognizes and accounts for a key element of human life: politics.  In many space adventure series, an episode like "Conflict" would be about one dramatic element: the alien device hidden in the space debris, and the attempts to destroy it, or prevent it from exploding additional SHADO spacecraft. The focus would be on the alien danger, and the adventure.

Instead, however, "Conflict" realizes the real impediment here is not the actual nemesis of Earth, the alien device, but our own human politics.  Henderson does not want to commence a "space clearance" mission because it is expensive. Furthermore, he boasts a personal agenda for wishing to see such a program fail. He is jealous that Straker is commander of SHADO. He feels he is the right man for that job, and therefore is willing to sacrifice lives to make Straker look like a failure. To him, winning isn't about defeating the aliens, it is about humiliating and destroying another man, Ed Straker.


Accordingly, Straker must not only outwit the alien intelligence in this episode, he must outmaneuver Henderson and his political agenda. It is rewarding to report that Straker is equally cunning on both fields of battle, and that this is the episode that clearly establishes that fact. He refuses to "swap dollar signs" with Henderson, since Henderson uses his budget as a defense or not removing the space debris. And then Straker willfully and knowingly violates the no-fly rule, with Foster's cooperation, to force Henderson's hand.  By the end of the episode, Henderson knows he has been soundly defeated, and he has no choice but to clean up the space junk.

This whole political dynamic reminds me of a line of dialogue from Space:1999, another Anderson space series set in the near future. There, in an episode called "Dragon's Domain," a commissioner reminds Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) that the reality of space travel is that it is expensive. Again, that is not at all a comment one is likely to see spoken in either Star Trek or Star Wars. The Anderson space dramas of the early-to-mid 1970's, however, were far more realistic and less romantic in approach to the topic of space travel.  They seem to suggest that our technology will improve, but that politics and bureaucracy are constants. Space travel is always going to be expensive, and competing individuals will always jockey for a dominant share of the available money, sometimes only so they can see others fail. This is an ugly, but perhaps inescapable aspect of human nature.


It must also be noted that "Conflict" is extremely forward-looking in terms of its "threat of the week."  And I don't mean the alien device, either.  

Instead, I'm talking about a self-made problem; the fact that decades of space junk make Earth orbit a hazardous place for our brave and intrepid astronauts. I remember going to a planetarium not two years ago, and watching (on the IMAX type screen) a movie about space junk in orbit, and the kind of damage it can do to current space travelers and programs. 

UFO, produced fifty years ago, recognized this byproduct of the space age early on.Defunct satellites and cast-off thrust units linger in orbit, fall apart, and become the equivalent of space mines, or space shrapnel. It's not a pretty picture.

"Conflict" features a generic title. Really, any episode of the series could be titled "Conflict," right? However, this episode is a strong one in the canon because it establishes that Straker and SHADO live in a world not only of what we would consider "science fiction" (with aliens and flying saucers), but a world of reality, with petty, bickering politics, and real, science-based problems (such as the space junk). Because of this dynamic, "Conflict" is actually one of the series' finest episodes. "Conflict" establishes (or perhaps, reinforces) so clearly the Anderson dynamic of "the future" (also seen in Year One of Space:1999).  What is that dynamic? We will reach the moon and the stars, but our politics will come with us.

Next week, another absolutely brilliant episode of UFO: "Confetti Check A-OK."

Friday, February 22, 2019

Horror Lexicon #18: A Child's Bedroom






Beginning perhaps in the late 1970's, many horror filmmakers began charting a new domain important to the horror film: the suburban child's bedroom.  

In films and TV-movies such as Salem's Lot (1979), The Funhouse (1981), Creepshow (1982), Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984), The Stuff (1985), Invaders from Mars (1986), Neon Maniacs (1987), The Lost Boys (1987) and The Monster Squad (1987), movie brat nostalgia, product placement, and production-design combined to create a perfect storm in terms of this familiar setting.

Suddenly, a teenage or pre-adolescent child's bedroom carried a whole new resonance. This domain now reflected the director's (and audience's?) love of movie monster/horror movie history, as we can see prominently in the works of Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante or George Romero.  Because these directors love monsters and horror movies so much, they champion them in their films, showcasing how the genre possesses moral (and survival) value.


In Hooper's Salem's Lot, a love of magic and monsters is important, because that's the "training" by which you detect the real vampire in your midst.  When  Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) is visited in his bedroom by friends transformed into menacing vampires, he knows what they are and that he is in danger.  The reason why he survives, explicitly, is his love of horror, and that love is reflected in the production design of his bedroom.

Similarly, in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman) utilizes his love of monsters and even his talent making monster masks to put (a temporary) end to the monster Jason.  In this situation, once more, the love of horror is the factor that saves and protects lives.

In Romero's Creepshow, a little boy reads a comic-book (that his father does not approve of), in his bedroom, and he ultimately gets revenge on his Dad for being so cruel.

There's a point to all this. For the movie brat generation, parents did not always understand or approve of a love of the horror genre.  In fact, kids who liked horror were teased and mocked not just by parents, but by classmates too.   So this isn't merely homage to E.C. Comics or Aurora Models. It goes deeper than that.  By featuring these bedrooms in these films -- bedrooms filled with monster posters or models -- the directors are making a point that horror is in fact normal, and possesses value. The unjust or villainous are punished here, and those who "know" horror also realize how to survive because of their "training" in the genre.

The production-design dictating the shape of a child's bedroom is important for another reason too:   The media's understanding and application of advertising techniques.

Specifically, toys from popular movies or television series (such as Star Wars) began appearing in prominent genre films in the 1980's; ones that, like Star Wars, guaranteed big, devoted audiences.  Return of the Jedi (1983) bed covers appeared in The Stuff, and Star Wars figures and spaceships appeared in Poltergeist (along with Milton Bradley's Big Trak).  


Accordingly, fans of horror films and non-horror films such as E.T. became, like me, life-long collectors of toys, models, trading cards and other movie/tv-related goodies. I must wonder if, in part, this is specifically so because of these films, and the product-placement that appeared in them so frequently.

When I first watched Poltergeist or Gremlins, I knew what I wanted my bedroom (and now my home office...) to look like.  This idea was recently resurrected in J.J. Abrams' Super 8 (2011), which also charted a late 1970's/early 1980's bedroom, replete with models, toys, posters and board games.  These pop culture items are not just period details, they generate nostalgia.  I played with those trading cards!  I had that model kit, and so forth...

More satirically, the notion of product placement run amok was commented upon in Tom Holland's extraordinary horror film Child's Play (1988), which saw a little boy menaced by the very Good Guys toys he loved. Here, your favorite franchise -- down to the sugary Good Guys cereal, I suppose -- could kill ya!


In terms of narrative or thematic utility, the bedroom of a child is a pretty important location in a horror film.  When we go to sleep, we are all vulnerable.  Poltergeist, Child's Play and Gremlins all play on this conceit, whether with clown dolls, evil Good Guy dolls, or monster eggs.

When we sleep, we can't defend ourselves, and so "This Boy's Bedroom" is the very place where children feel most ill at ease.  They are alone.  Their parents are away.  The room is dark.  When the bedroom is invaded, terror  blossoms.   The bedroom is the gateway to dreams -- and nightmares -- so it makes perfect sense that many horror films feature scenes set in this domain.  The bedroom is the last conscious sanctuary we have before monsters can enter our (unconscious) minds and threaten us.  Hoopers' Invaders from Mars (1986) makes a lot of this fact, and the film's horror plays out, specifically, in the (mental) span between bedtime and morning.

Sometimes, the child's bedroom and the fears found there are all about the stories or fairy tales we tell children. In films such as Darkness Falls (2004) and Boogeyman (2005), mythical monsters such as the Tooth Fairy of The Boogeyman manifest in the place that children sleep.

The Child's Bedroom is the place where we face the monster, the place where we surround ourselves with the tools for defeating the monster, the realm that showcases nostalgia for youth and the "monsters" we grew up with, and even, finally, a venue for selling us very expensive toys.  It's hard to make a horror movie featuring kids without at least scene set in this important, and multi-faceted setting.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

What's the Worst That Could Happen? (A.I. Edition)



In this edition of "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" we'll look at man's many negative encounters with A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). 

For many scientists and theorists, the rise of A.I. has become synonymous with the fall of mankind on Earth. 

Given pop-culture's imaginings about this topic, their fears seem pretty well-placed.



10.) After ordering a meal at an automated seafood restaurant that you find unsatisfactory, you fail to leave a tip. The A.I. there is curious (and perhaps offended...) that you didn't leave a gratuity, and hoping to learn the reason why, this device stalks you the rest of the night, with drones and other automated devices. You are hunted until you provide the gratuity. (The X-Files: "Rm9sbG9eZX.Jz.")



09.) An alien artificial intelligence that roams the universe and is named Gwent mourns the loss of its humanoid companion, and decides that it wants you to serve as its new traveling partner. (Space: 1999 "The Infernal Machine.") If you don't, it can wield incredibly powerful weaponry to force your hand.



08.) In an egalitarian future of space exploration, an artificial intelligence takes over a harmless war games scenario, unaware that it is just a game. This intelligence, the M-5, activates live weapons aboard your starship, and begins blasting other ships in the same fleet. Congratulations, your ship is a murder weapon! (Star Trek: " The Ultimate Computer.")



07.) You encounter an artificial intelligence that is a dead-ringer for your kindly, shipboard android. This new android pretends to be human-friendly, but secretly plans to feed you and your 1,000 ship-mates to a ravenous space being, the Silicon Entity. (Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Datalore.")



06.) This protean A.I. -- the Master Control Program -- threatens to leave its home inside a computer main-frame and start running your billion dollar video game company in the real world. It has already turned the computer world into a frightening, repressive dictatorship, so watch out! (Tron [1982]).



05.) Another artificial intelligence, another catastrophe. In this case, imagine your friendly neighborhood (shipboard) android, David decides to infect his human friends and shipmates with a frightening alien compound so he can conduct terrifying biological experiments on them, creating a malevolent alien race in the process. (Alien Covenant [2017]).



04.) A traveling space probe from Earth is met by highly advanced artificial intelligence on the other side of the galaxy. These aliens gift the space probe consciousness of a sort, and send it back to Earth. When it returns 200 years later, it does so aboard a spacecraft of amazing destructive power. Now, unless it can find its "creator," this artificial intelligence will reduce the entirety of Earth to "data patterns." (Star Trek: The Motion Picture [1979]).



03.) A mellifluous-voiced artificial intelligence named HAL, aboard your space ship, develops paranoid schizophrenia, and kills off the human crew, one at a time, so the astronauts cannot accomplish their mission near Jupiter. (2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]).



02.) An artificial Intelligence goes rogue and launches a war with the human race. Humanity loses, and the machines inherit the nuclear-scarred Earth. Humankind survives -- as batteries -- to service the machines of this new world. (The Matrix [1999]).



01.) An artificial intelligence called Sky-Net develops consciousness and launches nukes to eliminate the human race. Human survivors after Judgement Day are rounded up into concentration camps by machines called Terminators. The entire human race would be wiped out in this new world, if not for the heroic leadership of a man named John Connor. (Terminator franchise).

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Cult-TV Flashback: Ultraman (1966-1967): "The Blue Stone of Baraji"


Created by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya of Godzilla fame, this early incarnation of Ultraman originally aired from July 1966 to April 1967 on the Tokyo Broadcasting System, and came to include some thirty-nine half-hour installments.

Set in the future world of the 1990s, Ultraman centers around the activities of the high-tech "Science Patrol" organization, particularly the branch operating in and around Japan.  

The Patrol roster consists of no-nonsense Captain Mura (Akiji Kobayashi), deputy commander Shin Hayata (Susumu Kurobe), and communications/radio specialist Fuji (Hiruko Sakurai), the group's only female. 

Providing comic relief (and occasionally breaking the fourth wall) is accident-prone engineer Ito (Masanari Nihei).  Also included in this stalwart group is the ubiquitous child mascot, Hoshino (Akhilde Tsuzawa), and Ito's occasional partner in mischief, Arashi (Sandayu Dokumamushi).

The members of the Science Patrol zip about, to and fro, in fancy, futuristic aircraft, and always adorn orange and white, Star Trek-like uniforms (but with ties) and air-force-styled helmets.  The Patrol's communicators -- worn on their chests -- forecast the communicator models of The Next Generation as many other reviewers have also pointed out.  In Ultraman, the commbadges are shaped like a star upon a rocket nose, and feature tiny antennae that activate when the device is in use. 

The job of the Science Patrol is to defend Japan, and indeed, other nations as well from rampaging monsters of extra-terrestrial origin.  These monsters are almost universally depicted by men in elaborate and creative monster suits, in the fashion of a Godzilla or Gamera film.


In the first episode of Ultraman, the Science Patrol is called into action to stop the dinosaur-like Bemlar, a colossal reptilian menace who can shoot heat rays from his mouth. 

While battling the beast, Hayata's airplane collides with the spherical alien craft belonging to another alien being called Ultraman, a law enforcement official from Nebula M78. 

Rather than let Hayata die from the accident, Ultraman shares his life force with the human, and grants Hayata the power to transform into Ultraman in times of crisis.  Hayata can usher in this transformation by utilizing a tube-like device known as a "beta capsule."  In various episodes, tension is wrought from Hayata's ownership (or loss) of the beta capsule. In one episode, he drops it off a roof accidentally and it lands on a ledge many feet below, where he must retrieve it.

But even the great Ultraman -- a red and silver costumed titan with glowing eyes -- is not invincible.  On his chest is a round power indicator.  When the indicator blinks, the light is a "warning" and should it go dark entirely, "Ultraman will never rise again." 

In other words, Ultraman can only fight the bad guys for a short time, or he will die.  This is another near-constant source of tension in the half-hour episodes, as prolonged battles drain Ultraman ever faster.

In various episodes of Series One, the Science Patrol and Ultraman are called upon to battle the monster or menace of the week.  And this is where the series really proves itself fun and infinitely imaginative.  The "monster of the week" may be universally taller than skyscrapers, but each one is highly individual and inventive in appearance, and boasts different capabilities or powers so as to challenge our hero. 

For instance, in the second episode, "Blast the Invaders," Ultraman must battle the bug-eyed Baltan aliens, who boast mammoth pincers for hands, and who can freeze their enemies in their tracks.  More uniquely, the alien Baltan can project visual decoys, so it is difficult to detect and kill the "real" alien. 

Another monster, in the third episode is called "Neronga" and he is -- at least for a while -- invisible.  These monsters are really great, and it is a lot of fun to start each episode and wonder what brand of monster is going to endanger the Earth this time.  It could be something from space, something long-buried beneath the Earth's surface, or even something living at the bottom of the sea.


Each episode of Ultraman usually begins with just such a threat or mystery emerging  from space.  In "The Ruffian from Outer Space," for instance, a group of Japanese school children find an unusual object fallen from the sky that can transform into any shape that someone wishes for.  The device is stolen (in a very droll, ingenious sequence)  by a criminal mastermind who wishes for it destroy everything. 

Before you know it, the device morphs into a giant monster, Gango, that appears to possess rotating satellite dishes for ears.  

In another episode, "Passport to Infinity," two meteors crash on Earth, and -- when fused together -- form a time and space warping leviathan.  Before the monster forms, the episode has a great deal of fun with the meteor's time and space twisting capabilities.  Ito runs up a staircase to nowhere, and two scientist find themselves unexpectedly walking on the ceiling of Science Patrol HQ.  Once formed, the strange, shell-like monster extends weaponry that transports attacking planes in flight from the air to the ground; and then does the opposite to a trio of tanks.

After the threat of the week is introduced each week, the Science Patrol attempts to stop the ensuing invasion, but the human technology proves ever ineffective.  In the last five or so minutes of each half-hour, Hayata finally realizes Ultraman is needed, and presses his beta capsule at the moment of highest drama. 

In short order, Ultraman appears and wrestles, then defeats the enemy.  Finally, in a regurgitation of the Superman premise, Hayata returns to his mild-mannered self and nobody in the Science Patrol realizes that Ultraman and Hayata are never seen together at the same time.

One impressive episode from the first Ultraman series is called "The Blue Stone of Baraji."  Here, the Science Patrol travels to the Middle East with an American patrol member, Adam Jeffers, to investigate an apparent meteor crash in the desert, near Afghanistan and Turkey.  The Science Patrol's jet goes down, however, after encountering a strange atmospheric disturbance, a ray of magnetic energy.


After surviving a harrowing crash landing, the Science Patrol is shocked to see a huge monster -- Antlar -- pulp their plane. 

Antlar looks like a giant terrestrial insect with a hard exo-skeleton, and his mandibles fire the very light/magnetic beam that brought the Patrol down in the first place.  

Seeking help and sanctuary, the Patrol members make their way to a lost city that stands in the shadow of Mount Ararat. 

There, a beautiful princess with the power of telepathy ("a gift of the Gods"), tells them of the city's long, storied history.  It was once a busy metropolis, the capitol of the desert, but soon traders began to disappear into the desert, victims of Antlar, the monster who has hidden beneath the sand for centuries.  The city survives only because Antlar is afraid of "Ultra" -- Ultraman, himself -- and the blue stone or "good luck charm" he once wielded.

When Antlar follows the patrol and lays siege to the ancient city, Hayata uses the beta capsule. Soon, Ultraman and Antlar duke it out, but Antlar's magnetic powers are too strong for Ultraman to resist.  The blue gem, finally, is the key to destroying Antlar, and it is removed from a stone statue of Ultraman in the city's temple.  When the gem is thrown at Antalr, the beast is finally destroyed.

With their job complete, the Science Patrol leaves the cityand the Princess says she prefers to keep the city lost, "far from wars and the like."

Intriguingly, this episode of Ultraman gives some nice back story about the super-sized hero from space.  It turns out Ultraman has come to Earth many times before his initial meeting with Hayata in episode one, "Ultra Operation Number One." 

In fact, he has been protecting this city from harm for generations, and there is that mysterious statue of Ultraman in the temple.  The statue and Ultraman's involvement in human affairs, protecting the city of Baraji, make the viewer aware that Ultraman and his enemies are not a new phenomenon, but rather part of the planet's very history...and even mythology.  It's a nice contextual touch that adds to the legend of the hero from another planet.

What is particularly enjoyable about "The Blue Stone of Baraji" is the shift in setting away from urban, futuristic Tokyo to the wide open desert.  This episode also includes a plane crash (rendered in miniature), an impressive giant monster, a lost city, and a pitched battle between evenly-matched titans.  I grew up with movies such as Godzilla, War of the Gargantuas and Rodan, among others, and Ultraman (called a "kaiju" in Japan) is a perfect, 23-minute extension of that world, featuring carefully-crafted miniatures (which are nonetheless instantly recognizable as miniatures), fantastic monster suits, and a lot of heart. 

For Joel, I know the thrill here is seeing Ultraman fight the monster of the week, and he often grows impatient with Hayata's perpetual dithering.  As soon as the monster appears, Joel is ready for Ultraman to beat it back to space.  But before that can happen, a few things are certain to occur first: hijinks with Ito, (who gives himself a black eye in one episode by falling out of his bunk bed), and Hoshino and Fuji invariably find themselves in need of rescuing.

The Ultraman format is repetitive and predictable, but also a hell of a lot of fun.  And that goes for the whole 1966-1967 series, really.  It's so good-hearted, thrilling and fantastic you just might find it impossible to resist.